Of emigrants and immigrants

  • February 19, 2010
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A memorial statue in Hanko, Finland, commemorating the thousands of emigrants who left the country to start a new life in the United States

The definition of immigration is “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence or a plant or animal that becomes established in an area where it was previously unknown.” But the concept can encompass much more and much less than that.

Immigrating connotes coming to a new place while emigrating connotes leaving. My mother actually emigrated from Germany, but is it fair to say she immigrated to America?

That implies that there was some pull to this country. She did not share the spirit of those who left shtetls in Russia or Poland for America in the 19th century. They believed the streets were paved with gold, but nothing pulled my mother to a new country. She was only 12 years old when she emigrated; she wanted to remain in Germany with her parents.

In the process of emigrating, my mother also became an immigrant in another aspect of her life. As she entered adolescence, she sought meaning and coherence, mirroring every young person’s journey from childhood to adulthood.

A broad interpretation of immigration would include children entering adolescence since they are introduced to “an area … previously unknown.” It also would include adults who, say, leave an unhappy marriage, as they are coming to a new “country to take up permanent residence.”

Through major life changes, we are both emigrants and immigrants.

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